Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s tax hike hits a hurdle

A citizens advisory committee recommended the City Council reject any proposed tax increase.
Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw details the proposed police budget at the Tampa City Council earlier this month.
Tampa police Chief Lee Bercaw details the proposed police budget at the Tampa City Council earlier this month. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 24|Updated Aug. 24

A citizens review board dealt a blow to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s proposed budget Wednesday, recommending that council members vote against the double-digit property tax rate increase she says is necessary to keep the city thriving.

The recommendation, supported by all but one member of the seven-person committee, surfaced in a contentious meeting in which members criticized the administration for not transparently detailing where the additional tax revenue would be spent.

“I can’t tell whether I think it’s a good idea or not because I cannot tell where the money went,” committee member Stephanie Poynor, president of Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods, said of the proposed tax hike.

“I don’t think the citizens of Tampa have all the information they need,” she said.

To the City Council, the public and the members of the media, Castor has stressed the tax increase is necessary to tackle an ever-growing backlog of maintenance projects and four priority policy areas: parks, transportation, housing and public safety.

“I know that this is a bold move. But it is necessary,” she told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month. “Burying our head in the sand isn’t going to improve any of these issues.”

But closer inspection of the budget has stirred confusion and frustration among council members and citizens who say they are unable to discern where the revenue would be funneled.

The administration, for example, pitched the budget as a boost to public safety, with 30 police department positions and 30 for Tampa Fire Rescue. But those positions do not appear in full in the budget. That is because they would be grant-funded and the city has not yet secured the award, Chief Financial Officer Dennis Rogero said at the City Council citizens advisory budget and finance committee meeting.

What if the city is not successful in securing the grant?

“That’s a darn good question,” Rogero said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think my answer is, we’ll have to be flexible.”

Members of the committee, appointed by the City Council, are tasked with identifying community needs, reviewing program priorities and making recommendations to the council on expenditures and revenues.

At Wednesday’s meeting in Old City Hall, Poynor also asked for city staff to present a copy of the budget “without the infusion of the millage.”

Rogero said such a budget does not exist.

“There is no other budget out there,” he said, adding that if Castor’s proposed tax increase is not adopted in full, “we’re going to have to redo the budget.”

After the meeting, committee chairperson Craig Newman told the Times that he felt there hadn’t been “full disclosure” about the spending of the tax increase, which coupled with the current economic climate makes a rate increase inappropriate.

“Our insurance bills have gone through the roof, our electric bill just increased,” he said. “I’m lucky, it is not going to change my lifestyle. But the increase would deeply impact a lot of residents.”

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Among City Council members, Castor’s proposal has been met with both applause for her “vision” as well as hesitation about increasing the property tax rate — which the city has done only once since 1989 — by 16%.

Residents can also weigh in during two public hearings, set for Tuesday and Sept. 19, when the City Council will vote on the budget. If council approves the budget, it will go into effect on Oct. 1.